Eric Brown is the author of over forty books including Helix and Kethani. His latest novel, The Serene Invasion features an eerie conquest of earth that sweeps away the old order without a drop of bloodshed. Unseen and without warning, extraterrestrial visitors arrive to save the human race from its warlike and aggressive ways. The fallout touches everyone on the planet as the balance of power is reversed, following the disappearance of the threat of violence from everyday life.
As surprising winners and losers start to rebuild their lives, a mystery emerges. Why have the alien Serene arrived on earth, and what other motivations do they have in becoming the saviours of humanity?
Thanks for speaking to Amazing Stories!
EB: Delighted to be placed under the microscope…
AS: Eric, you’ve been a published author for twenty-odd years now and you have quite a following. How does The Serene Invasion fit in with the rest of your works?
EB: It fits into that section of my work which I term ‘quiet SF’ – as opposed to Hard SF etc. That is, it’s about the people affected by change rather than the change itself; it’s not action-adventure (like Helix, Helix Wars, Engineman, Penumbra, and my Weird Space novels); it sits alongside books like Kethani, Starship Seasons, The Kings of Eternity. These are also my favourites amongst all my work.
AS: At its heart, The Serene Invasion has quite a pessimistic message: that humanity can only be saved from social, economic or environmental disaster through the interference of an outside agency. Do you feel very pessimistic about the future in general?
EB: Well, it is, I agree, pessimistic in the sense that it is positing a future in which the human race is saved only by an outside agency, rather than from its own actions. In this it follows the ideas in my other books, Kethani, and Helix, and to an extent Engineman, and several of my short stories. I suppose this posits the question, do I think that the salvation of the human race will come about only by the actions of an outside agency? Or, put another way, do I think that we, as a race, are incapable of saving ourselves?
I’ll get out of this by citing the old saw and claiming artistic licence: there are times when I despair and think that we’ll never solve the ills that blight our race – and so I write books like The Serene Invasion, Kethani, etc… And then there are other days when I think that perhaps, with the right kind of people in power, then salvation just might be attainable. I’ve also written optimistic books: Guardians of the Phoenix, Helix Wars, Starship Seasons. I wrote Serene in response to the daily dose of violent news about wars, mass murders, shooting… And in response, in part, to the evil of the arms manufacturers and the gun lobby in the US who cynically pander to our propensity for violence. I wanted to write a novel in which these people lost… Okay, some might say that I’m being head-in-the-clouds idealistic, that the answer does not lie in any fairy tale salvation from the stars, but in working out a way, politically, to disenfranchise those with a vested interest in maintaining the corrupt status quo (people like James Morwell in Serene), and perhaps I am guilty of this. But hell, writing Serene was a great catharsis.
AS: When The Serene Invasion begins, various towns and villages are enclosed within a transparent, impassable barrier. In some ways, this part of the book felt like an homage to John Wyndham’s The Midwich Cuckoos. Was that intentional or just a coincidence?
EB: A coincidence. I’ve never read The Midwich Cuckoos. The reason I used domes was that I love them – they’re iconic – and I needed some dramatic image for Geoff Allen to fix on in the second chapter.
AS: Recently there has been a discussion as to whether greater scientific knowledge is destroying SF. In The Serene Invasion, part of the action takes place elsewhere in our solar system, on Mars and Venus. Was this an attempt to recapture the spirit of Science Fiction past?
EB: People often say that my SF is old fashioned anyway… and I wonder if this is because I do hark – perhaps subconsciously – to SF of the past. I honestly don’t know. I used the settings of Mars, Titan, and further out, because they were, I felt, dramatically necessary in the context of the story I was telling. But I always wanted to tie them in with a nostalgic vision of Shropshire, which is why I had the Allens’ cottage move with them across the system.
AS: One of the most original aspects of The Serene Invasion was its focus on India and Africa. What does India mean to you? Why is it such an important feature in your work?
EB: It’s important because it’s played such a big part in my life. When I was twenty-four, naïve and inexperienced, I spent a year travelling around India. The experience changed my life on so many levels. I absorbed so much. I learnt a lot, about myself, about other people, about the country. Writing about the subcontinent comes naturally to me. India was the closest I could come to experiencing an alien world and yet still remain on planet Earth; everything was bizarre and otherworldly, from the customs to the religion, the food (I’d never eaten a curry until travelling to India!). I haven’t been back since 1993, but I’d love to.
AS: Your agent, John Jarrold has announced that your next project will be a Steampunk adventure with an Indian teenage female protagonist. This feels like a continuation of the character of Ana Devi from The Serene Invasion. What interests you in these kind of characters?
EB: Well, I suppose she could be seen as a continuation, yes. What interests me? I wanted to write a novel from the point of view of a female character, and as the novel is set in India it seemed natural to do so from an Indian perspective; I wanted to subvert a few norms, write about a (to begin with) Hindu girl who is bold and strong, defiant and courageous, and who will not bow to authority. Of course she must be pretty special to have developed like this in the Indian society of 1900, and the novel will, I hope, show why. (To answer your question: it’s dramatically interesting to write about characters like Ana Devi, and Ana in my YA book Untouchable, as they’re at the bottom of the societal pile, with everything to fight for. I’ve just realised something: checking the surname of the Ana character in Untouchable, I’ve found that it’s the same as the Ana in Serene: Devi. Weird).
AS: At one point in The Serene Invasion you name-check the work of Chris Foss, cover artist for Isaac Asimov and Jack Vance, among others. Has his art been a particular inspiration for you?
EB: I began reading SF in the mid-seventies, when I was fifteen, and his artwork was all over the place, along with Tim White’s (whose work I truly love). But yes, they were a big influence on me, and some of my very early, unpublished stories were actually based on ideas generated by their covers. (I loved the bull-nosed spaceship depicted on the Corgi paperback edition of Silverberg’s collection Sundance and other stories). These days I admire the artwork of – and work a lot with – their natural successor, Dominic Harmon, whose incredible cover graces The Serene Invasion.
AS: Finally, the characters in The Serene Invasion are rather fond of Leffe, Belgium’s finest beer. Is this the dawn of product placement in novels, or is it just something that gives you a little extra inspiration? (It’s strong stuff!).
EB: I don’t go for product placement, as such, but mentioning real products like this does sometimes help to define characters – and yes, I do like the odd drop myself. The characters in Kethani also drink a lot of Timothy Taylor’s Landlord – which I did many years ago. (Some American reviews have claimed that the amount of drinking done in that novel is unrealistic. I can assure them: it’s not).
Thanks for talking to Amazing Stories!